Will Glens Falls hockey fans accept lower level ECHL?
by John Furgele
For the third time, hockey fans in Glens Falls feel spurned. First, it was the Red Wings, then the Phantoms and now the Flames. As expected, the AHL announced that five teams are up and moving west to create a new Pacific Division. The reasons are obvious: proximity to the parent clubs, easier flights when calling up a player, and reduced costs, but that doesn’t make the jilted Glens Falls hockey fan feel better. For the most part, the city of Glens Falls and the surrounding areas have supported AHL hockey and because of that, the fans feel that they deserve an AHL franchise.
It was an interesting announcement as well. On one hand, the city is losing its AHL franchise, on the other; they are getting an ECHL team, which will owned by the Calgary Flames. In essence, this is a swap; the current ECHL Stockton Thunder will become the AHL Thunder while the current AHL Flames will become the ECHL Flames or some other moniker.
There are many emotions here, and to summarize, there are three camps. First is the disgruntled, “I’ll never support the team again.” camp. These are the fans that felt that the Red Wings leaving was wrong, and didn’t support Glens Falls’ years in the United Hockey League from 1999-2006. They accepted the temporary relocation of the Phantoms, knowing that the team would move once an arena was completed in Lehigh Valley, PA. They figured if they supported the temporary Phantoms, they’d be rewarded with a permanent AHL franchise.
They thought they were right. The Phantoms departed, and in came the Flames. AHL hockey was not only back, but back to stay. But, the only certainty in life is uncertainty, and the groundswell for a western division continued to pick up steam, culminating in what happened last Thursday. The AHL Flames, as well as the AHL are gone in Glens Falls, and this time, it’s unlikely that it’s coming back.
The second camp is the “I’ll support hockey in Glens Falls, because any hockey is better than no hockey.” Of course, that camp existed when the Ice Hawks/Frostbite came to town in 1999. At first, the crowds were pretty good, but as time wore on, they decreased and the UHL was gone, leaving the Civic Center dark for much of the calendar year. If the ECHL is to succeed in Glens Falls, this camp has to not only maintain, it has to grow. By all accounts, the ECHL is a vastly superior product to the now defunct UHL, but the fact is that most ECHL players will never play in the NHL and many more will not even be fixtures in the AHL.
The third camp is the casual fan, the “I’ll go to one or two games per year just to be entertained on a dark cold night.” These fans, for the most part, don’t really care about the level of hockey because, by definition, they’re casual fans. These fans have to keep going to their one to two games and for the good of Glens Falls increase from one to two, or two to three. The casual fan is the one demographic that any sports franchise covets, because this is a segment that has growth potential.
While I understand the bitterness, I don’t really understand camp one. Glens Falls is a city of 15,000 people, and for the most part, will never draw many fans south of Clifton Park. The more north you go, the less people, and more importantly, the less young people. The arena is beyond antiquated; yes, the sightlines are wonderful, there is a good feel to being there, but in today’s modern age, it’s all about amenities. To survive, they are needed and the GFCC simply doesn’t have them. The hard core hockey fan will state that it’s not a big a deal, but we live in the times of bells and whistles. Today’s fans aren’t very good at sitting in a seat for two plus hours. They want to walk around, have access to Wi-Fi, great food, and other entertainment while at the game. They don’t care really who wins the game, it’s more important to have a great time, and hence, come again.
There won’t be a new Civic Center and there won’t be a major refurbishing either. As they say, it is what it is. In many ways, the GFCC may not be that suitable for ECHL hockey, but for now, they’re in. The ECHL wants to expand its footprint to the east and Glens Falls fits the bill.
There is some smugness being displayed by the hard core fans. If Cincinnati, Toledo, Tulsa and Indianapolis can have ECHL franchises, why can’t Glens Falls? How can a city of 900,000 (Indianapolis) embrace a team, yet tiny Glens Falls thumb their collective noses at the league?
Fort Wayne is the best example. The city of 256,000 has a long storied minor league hockey history. Other than the Original Six teams and Hershey Bears, no team has played more consecutive seasons than the Komets, who began play in 1952-1953. And, like Glens Falls, the Komets have bounced around. They played in the old International Hockey League for decades, then played in the UHL, IHL again, and CHL before settling in the ECHL. They draw over 7,300 fans per game, and as good as Glens Falls hockey history is, it pales in comparison to the Komets.
Glens Falls fans should embrace the ECHL. They should change their first name from Adirondack to Glens Falls to give the team a true identity, one that won’t leave fans in Fort Wayne googling to see where “Adirondack” is. They should adopt the mentality that Double A hockey is better than no hockey and they should realize that if the ECHL leaves the GFCC, there won’t be another minor league venture replacing it.
But, this is a free society. The fans of the North Country will make the decision. They will support the new ECHL team or they won’t. If the team succeeds, it will be a source of pride for the community. If the team fails, then it fails. There is no gun to your head here. The fans can check it out for themselves. If they go to a game and render the ECHL as inferior, then so be it.
Life isn’t fair. The city of Glens Falls didn’t really have a say. They were told that an ECHL team is coming and there was no discussion or dialog to be had. Hopefully, after the hurt subsides, they will realize that Glens Falls and the ECHL can work, but it certainly can’t be forced down their throats.
I will hope for the best, hope that a proud old hockey town will embrace a new league and new era. It’s tough to be teased, and the AHL has certainly done some teasing the past few years. The operators of this ECHL franchise are going to have work, and if they take the savvy Glens Falls fans for granted, that would be a mistake. In the end, these are good hockey fans and they deserve to have a top notch team in this lower tier league. Moreover, they deserve some stability and a feeling that the new team will be here to stay.